Burden of the Desert by Justin Huggler
|Burden of the Desert by Justin Huggler|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: Rarely is something this informative also this exciting. This isn't a war story, it's a human story. A story about the men, women and children in post-Saddam Iraq as well as those trying to project their voices and protect their lives. Justin Huggler popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 618||Date: January 2013|
|Publisher: Short Books|
|External links: Author's website|
|ISBN: 978- 1479352043|
Journalist Zoe Temple can't believe her luck when she's sent to Iraq to cover the birth of an emerging nation, not thinking that such luck can sometimes run out. Mahmoud earns his money driving journalists from story to story, sometimes only just escaping intact. However, the most dangerous thing he will ever do is fall in love. Rick Benes is one of the American soldiers on the news, his only ambition being to get his platoon home safely as Iraq's birth pangs are violent and unrelenting. And then there's Adel, a young Iraqi lad who never dreamt of violence; not until the day that Benes killed his family.
This may be Channel Islander Justin Huggler's debut novel but he has the sort of writing experience that's synonymous with his day job as former foreign correspondent for The Independent. This took him into conflict zones including Afghanistan and, in 2003 and 2004, Iraq. Therefore as Burden of the Desert is set in 2003/2004 Iraq, the biographical connection may be safely assumed, creating an authenticity that explodes on the page.
The book's name is a line from Isaiah chapter 21 via the 17th century King James Bible, lamenting the fall of Babylon, as Iraq once was. This impression of incessant fighting is emphasised by little glimpses of the lament popping up randomly like a Greek chorus. By the way, 'burden' as the KJ Bible used it can also mean 'message' in modern day vernacular, giving the title a double meaning.
When it comes down to it, the author's approach is as clever as his writing. This novel isn't a static camera on one person's shoulder but a collection of viewpoints from all sides, creating a panoramic picture. Even better than this, he's skilful enough to ensure that we sympathise with each of the main characters no matter what. Although we may not agree with Adel's politics, we're rooting for his survival as hard as that of Benes. We understand and empathise with his reasoning, realising perhaps, if the positions were reversed, we'd even do the same as cultural misunderstanding proves as sharp a weapon as any knife.
This review does come with a couple of warnings though…
Warning One: speaking as one who was so mesmerised that I couldn't help but read all 600+ pages in one late, late sitting, don't plan on taking the book to bed for an early night.
Warning Two: the first chapter has a touch of Spielberg's Private Ryan about it as we're violently bombarded. Please don't be put off. It does its job, graphically conveying the brutality and local conditions perfectly, dropping us in the deep end without preamble. If you are a bit squeamish, be assured it eases considerably after this. So read this first chapter in daylight, with a drink of water and deep breaths because you will miss so much if you skip it. The gentle moments between Mahmoud and his beloved Saara or the revelations of life in the press pack as Zoe discovers that the story is to be pursued at all costs won't mean as much to you without these brief moments of horrific context. (There are also moments of personal passion throughout the novel, but Mr H knows when to close a bedroom door so no concern required.)
After our imaginations have been guided around dusty, parched streets in such diverse company and crowds that can erupt with hardly any notice and even less provocation, we begin realise that solution is more complex than neutral caretakers who inadvertently escalate rather than ameliorate. Let's hope we aren't the only ones who notice.
If this appeals and you'd like to read more about a correspndent's life at the sharp end, then try War Stories by Jeremy Bowen. If, on the other hand, you'd prefer another fictionalised account of Iraq by someone who was there, we just as heartily recommend The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.
You can read more book reviews or buy Burden of the Desert by Justin Huggler at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Burden of the Desert by Justin Huggler at Amazon.com.
You can read more about Justin Huggler here.
Justin Huggler was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.
Burden of the Desert by Justin Huggler is in the Top Ten Self-Published Books 2013.
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